My Personal Hell

There are moments when I freak out because of the sheer amount of thoughts sprinting so ferociously through my mind and bouncing off every edge that I feel like my brain is going to implode.

These moments usually occur when I let my mental guard down and start considering such dramatic truths as the fact that we are finite creatures… That I’m 27 years old and what I’ve already done cannot be changed or re-done; what I’ve already lost cannot, for the most part, be saved.

People that I love who were once in my life are no longer physically present. I cannot give them a call whenever I want, or worse, embrace them in a long, heart-felt hug. This causes me the most anxiety. The same goes for not being able to re-live certain situations of my past that were absolutely outstanding and that I miss dearly.

It’s over. It’s done. People, places, things… They’ve all come and gone, some for better, some for worse. Why did no one warn us ahead of time? Why weren’t we more attentive, more conscious? Why weren’t we taught to perceive these things as children? Blessed innocence, yet the day these realizations come crashing down is probably one of the most brutal days of our childhood.

This crazy mess in my brain always leads me to obsessively ask: Am I living the life I want? Am I taking the necessary risks? Am I happy with the direction my life is headed? What is my purpose? Is that even the right question? Is there such thing as a right question? Should I be asking questions to begin with, or should I simply be living without thinking too much?

I usually let these things sit for a while until I can process them fully without the freak-out aspect, and it never fails: once I’m calm, I find inspiration everywhere, and it usually gives me a good ass-kicking in the right direction.

Check this out, by the late David Foster Wallace:

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of… Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

Please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.

It is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head… Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.

Most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look  [at things] differently… If you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

… The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

[T]he real value of a real education [has] almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

‘This is water.’

‘This is water.’

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out.

There are an infinite number of things that you and I will never be able to change about our lives and the people in them because they fall completely outside of our control. I don’t like this truth, but I have to accept it, especially because there is a loophole: we can control ourselves, our thoughts, how we react to them, how we choose to act, what we do everyday to become better human beings.

I advocate strongly in favor of all of us taking a deep, hard look into ourselves to unearth the better part of our humanity. Forget about who you used to be and try to become so aware of what is “hidden in plain sight all around us” that your “default settings” shift to include others. Then, even if your thoughts attempt to overwhelm you, like they do me, it’ll be easier to regain your focus every time.

You and I, we’re not the center of the universe. Not even close. At the end of the day, or of our lives, it really won’t matter if we were capable or not of re-doing our past, because no one will be living there anymore. What will matter is what we did with each step we took in our present to build our future. And, more importantly, what will matter is how we made others feel and how we helped them along our way.

Save yourself from your own personal hell. Stay aware.

Photo: Belén Alemán / Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires, Argentina

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